In 1978, at a time when Pt Ravi Shankar, Pt Nikhil Banerjee and Ut Vilayat Khan were being feted as the finest sitar players in the country, a young sitar player in his 20s was referred to as “the sitar player of the century”. The iconic veena player S Balachandar heard Buddhaditya Mukherjee during a broadcast of Akashwani Sangeet Sammelan. With no long lineage in music, Mukherjee’s baaj (playing technique) was inspired by the famed gayaki ang of the Imdadkhani gharana (Ut Vilayat Khan’s gharana). Balachandar wrote a letter to Akashwani and sent blessings for the musician’s befitting future. A couple of years earlier, Filmmaker Satyajit Ray is said to have been “stunned” by the sitar-playing he had heard on one of his friend’s requests in Calcutta. He called the performance “soul-stirring”.
Years later, Mukherjee may not be a conventional name in the country’s concert circuit and not attract the crowds like some of his counterparts do, but he has always been celebrated by the connoisseurs. So it was interesting when the audience, about 20,000 of them, were hooked when he occupied the stage at the Bengal Classical Music Festival — a five-day all-night classical music festival held in Dhaka last month. “I have never been outgoing in a way that I want to be noticed for something other than my music. I always go by the analogy of a perfume — the fragrance permeates on its own. If a person is devoted to his art, he will never go and tell others, ‘see how good I am’. I am happy to be in that category. I will only kneel down in front of my sitar and god. But not in front of the organisers. Public relations has never been my forte,” says Kolkata-based Mukherjee.
So at about 4 am, at the Abahoni Grounds in Dhaka, the dipped degrees of temperature didn’t seem to matter. Post an exhilarating performance by Ut Rashid Khan and piercing percussion jugalbandis during Pt Jasraj’s performance, the quiet and dignified 63-year-old Mukherjee took the stage and opened with the meditative dawn raga, Lalit. A 16th-century raga, the unfolding of the notes also represented the transition from night to day. Mukherjee plucked the strings along with the diligent Somen Nandy, who didn’t choose exhibitionism like most tabla players at the festival. Those present heard every stroke and glide representative of the intense training Mukherjee has gone through. “It’s exciting and frightening to play in front of so many people. As an artiste, you first have to please yourself. Along the way, the audience will float along. I have played to an audience of 8,000 and even 60 people. I put in the same every time,” says Mukherjee. At the festival, he concluded his recital, as is tradition, with the majestic Bhairavi.
In most of his recitals, Mukherjee announces that he plays “Imdadkhani gharane ki sitar”. Growing up in Bhilai, where his father was in-charge of one of the mining units, sitar was a conscious choice of his father and guru, Pt Bimalendu Mukherjee, who taught him since he was five. Pt Bimalendu had trained under the legendary Ut Enayat Khan (Ut Vilayat Khan’s father). His teachers also include sitarist Balaram Pathak, khayal singers Badri Prasad and Jaichand Bhatt of the Patiala and Kirana gharana, and Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, the zamindar of Gouripur (in present-day Bangladesh), who taught him the moribund sursringar (bass sarod), among others. “We used to rehearse in the morning and the evening. In between, he’d go to work and I’d go to school,” says Mukherjee, whose only other source of entertainment was LPs, and his homemaker mother playing sarangi.
“I spent 41 years in Bhilai, a small town, and still made it as a respectable musician. I wasn’t in the ‘real circles’ of music and yet managed some ripples. One doesn’t have to be at a particular place at a particular time to be successful. If you are hard working, you’ll make it,” says Mukherjee. He adds, “When I had just begun to play, I was always the second artiste, squeezed in between the significant first and third. Out of the thousands, 50-60 people would remain, as everyone would want to grab a bite, talk or network. My aim then was that I have to play so well that when those people come back, these 50-60 tell them, you missed something significant.”
While his sitar was pleasing to the audience, Mukherjee was not happy with his instrument. So he created one for himself. His ninth, for it the artiste pulled apart almost 35 sitars. “It was hard to play a sitar when its sound didn’t satisfy me, while keeping in my mind the sound of Vilayat Khan’s sitar, which did. So I decided to make my own,” says Mukherjee. The Vilayat Khan sitar Mukherjee talks about, was not Khan’s own. “When he was about 32 and in Calcutta, his sitar got wet in the rain. Musician Biru Mitra offered his sitar, which Khan never returned because of its immaculate sound,” says Mukherjee.
The meticulousness of playing the right sitar has also extended to choosing the perfect tabla accompaniment. He chose Nandy while judging a classical music competition in Kolkata some years ago. “He was a young boy, but the moment he started playing the tabla, with the first dha I realised I had been looking for that baaj forever,” he says.
During our conversation in the lobby of Pan Pacific Sonargaon, Odissi dancer Sukata Mohapatra walks up to Mukherjee and asks him to come along for the upcoming concerts. “As much as I’d like to, I’d like to sit with my saaz and do some riyaaz,” Mukherjee tells Mohapatra. Mohapatra smiles and nods. “Main bada darpok kalakaar hoon. I need to immerse myself in the sound of my instrument and practise. How does one deliver a perfect performance otherwise?” says Mukherjee.